The APA on happiness and motherly love

This was the promising headline of the cover story from the APA Monitor’s October 2010 issue: “Does Marriage Make Us Happy?

The APA Monitor, a monthly publication specifically for mental health professionals, is more popular magazine than scholarly journal.  It presents the latest APA-endorsed psychological “research” to practitioners, aiming to improve their service delivery, making it more “evidenced-based.”  (more on the phenomenon of “evidence-based practice” someday soon…)

The author focuses on the work of Daniel Gilbert (PhD), an expert on happiness, mind you… he’s a pioneer in the field and the author of a New York Times Best Selling Book! These are all the references he appears to need – despite repeated mentions of “over 20 years of research,” the author fails to list a single study to support Gilbert’s claims.

And let me tell you, he makes some pretty incredible claims…

So, tell me… Will Marriage Make Me Happy?

Well according to Gilbert, only a happy marriage will make you happy.  And dissolving an unhappy marriage will make you even happier.  Also, enough money to meet the basic needs of yourself and your family will make you happy.

Ok; not so surprising.

But check this out:

Resting and relaxing don’t bring happiness because when you’re not engaged in a task – even a generally unpleasant one – your mind wanders, and you may ruminate on unhappy experiences.

(Dr. Daniel T. Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University)

WHOA, Dr. Gilbert.  If only there were a citation for this statement; I could check the science out for myself.

Left to my own devices, I stumbled upon a host of studies that directly contradict the idea that resting, relaxation, and mental processing of unhappy experiences [ie, meditation] are anything but therapeutic… (like this onethis one, and this one).

Keep in mind; not only does this guy teach at Harvard; he was the keynote speaker at the 2010 APA convention (presenting this and other ground-breaking research).

What else makes us unhappy, besides relaxation and resting?

Happiness falls for both men and women after the first child is born. Some 20 years of research shows that people without children are happier than people with children and that people with young children living with them are the least happy of all, Gilbert says. For women, spending time with their children ranks about the same as vacuuming on happiness scale [sic]. [emphasis added]

(again, Dr. Gilbert, Harvard University professor of psychology)

Obviously, this unfortunate woman's happiness scale is all messed up.

The eugenic undertones in this quote are pretty astounding.  Eugenic attitudes have been a regular feature of the professional treatment of the mentally ill for centuries, though you don’t usually see it so explicitly stated these days.

Another thing: we’re not sure how Dr. Gilbert defines “happiness” – it’s not described in the article.  What is this “happiness scale” which yields such surprising results?  If his website is any indication, it might in some way correlate to the main research activity of the Gilbert Lab: “Track Your Happiness with your iPhone.”

THE HAPPINESS SCALE (from "Very Bad" all the way up to "Very Good"), developed at arguably the most prestigious research university in the country... good work, guys!

(Presumably, without an iPhone, your happiness is so minimal it’s not even worth tracking.)

So instead of expressing love for family and friends, perhaps you might enjoy vacuuming the living room?

And if you were saving up money to send your kids (bane of your existence, I’m sure…) to prestigious Harvard University to study psychology… I think your money would be better spent elsewhere.


On a more serious note, if this is the kind of “evidence” the APA is providing its professionals with (upon which their “evidence-based practice” is presumably based)…

How will this affect the care they provide to their patients, many of who mare seeking serious emotional/mental/spiritual guidance (and have a right to expect it from those who claim to be “soul healers”)?  How would you react if your therapist calmly told you that science has proven that vacuuming is going to make you just as happy as interacting with your children?

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